Portrait of an artist betrayed by his nation

With the rise of Hitler, Liebermann's status as both person and painter vanished.

The noted German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935), once one of his country's leading cultural figures until ousted by Hitler, is currently being introduced to Americans at New York's Jewish Museum. Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism is on view through July 30. Forty-six of the artist's paintings span the stylistic and thematic phases of his prolific career, from his realist interpretations of Dutch peasant life to his own approach to Impressionism. The exhibition was first seen at (and organized by) the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Liebermann, born into a wealthy Jewish family, enjoyed the comfortable status of patrician. He was well-known not only for his art but for his liberal leadership in the cultural life of Berlin and noted for supporting artists of all styles and approaches. Not a modernist, he was ready to help anyone of talent. Even the anti-Semites among them respected him. Liebermann was president of the Berlin Secession from 1898 until 1910 and President of the Prussian Academy of Art from 1920 till 1933. When Hitler became Chancellor, Liebermann was forced to resign his post and his paintings were removed from view in German museums. Overnight, his status as both person and artist vanished. Liebermann was lucky to have lived throughout a period of German liberalism as the scion of a family of cotton manufacturers, who tried in vain to discourage him from becoming an artist. But he soon challenged the conservative art sanctioned by the government and insisted on the presentation of rural peasantry and members of the working class. This brought him instant notoriety as the "painter of filth" and "apostle of ugliness," but they were among his best works. His preoccupation with scenes of social equality came at a time when democratic reforms were resisted in Germany. Though a new constitution promised full equality for all, cosmopolitan Jews were constantly reminded of their origins and blamed for corrupting the German nation by importing modernity. Despite the obvious debt his early realist paintings owe to foreign influences as diverse as France's Gustave Courbet and Hungary's Mih ly Munk csy, Liebermann's portrayals of labor reflect his own tenuous place as a Jew in Germany. Nevertheless, Liebermann's resistance to identifying his art as Jewish stemmed from his refusal to acknowledge a cultural divide between Gentile and Jew, something which explains the scarcity of religious subjects in his work. Admirably, he usually erased sentiment, pathos, and even the anecdotal from his work. However, in one of his most important and controversial paintings, The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple (1879), Liebermann embraced the melodramatic. The painting aroused a furor and was universally panned. Its image of Jesus was described by one critic as "the ugliest, most impertinent Jewish boy imaginable." Sadly, Liebermann's reaction was to change the boy's features, gestures, and clothing, into a blond, angelic figure characteristic of conventional depictions of Jesus. By the end of the 19th century Liebermann's cultural stature was finally acknowledged and in 1896 the German government allowed him to accept the French Legion of Honor, which he had been forced to reject earlier in his career. The following year, the annual salon celebrated his 50th birthday with a retrospective and he was awarded its gold medal and the title of professor. In 1898 he was elected to the Royal Academy. As Liebermann began to celebrate his fame, he produced many self-portraits, and also assumed the role of the genteel painter accepting portrait commissions of the cultural and political elite, including Chancellor Hindenburg, as well as genre paintings of members of his own social class of people strolling in the park, sitting in cafes, horseback riding or playing tennis. But Liebermann remained a fighter. When the work of the young landscape painter Walter Leistikow was rejected by the jury of the annual Berlin salon in 1898, it spurred Leistikow and Liebermann to organize an alternative artists' movement, the Berlin Secession. Serving as its founding president for 13 years, Liebermann championed the inclusion in Secession exhibitions of contemporary foreign artists like Edvard Munch, whose brooding scenes scandalized the public. As Liebermann felt increasing pressure from within the Secession - with the emergence of German Expressionism and debates about modernism - and from the complex nationalist atmosphere in German society around World War I, he retreated more frequently to his country house on the shore of Lake Wannsee, a suburb southwest of Berlin. During the war, its gardens began to figure prominently in Liebermann's paintings. At Lake Wannsee, Liebermann portrayed parts of his flower garden again and again. Like Monet, he had discovered that repetitive treatments of the same subject could result in greater formal experimentation. Liebermann the German patriot who had publicly backed the Kaiser's war in 1918, was eventually disabused of his dream of assimilation by the rise of the Nazis. His last self-portrait, like the one in the collection of the Israel Museum, shows his resignation at having been betrayed by the nation with which he, like so many other German Jews, fervently identified. Ironically, it was at Wannsee, in a villa taken from a Jew, that Reinhard Heydrich later organized the meeting of German officials that began the implementation of the "Final Solution." Liebermann died in Berlin in 1935, at the age of 87. In 1943, his wife Martha committed suicide on the eve of deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The show's catalogue, edited by exhibition curator Barbara C. Gilbert, has essays by Gilbert, Chana Sch tz, Hermann Simon, Mason Klein, Marion Deshmukh, Fran oise Forster-Hahn and a timeline compiled by Suzanne Schwarz Zuber, was published by the Skirball Cultural Center. The 220-page book contains 150 color images, and is the first monograph on Liebermann in English. It is available at The Jewish Museum's shop for $29.95 (paperback).